The student news site of Los Altos High School in Los Altos, California

Opinion: Debate is a lesson in justice

March 30, 2023

A running gag between some of the debaters on the MVLA team is that the motto of debate is “life isn’t fair.”

It seems somewhat contradictory. Debate is an activity built on reason and logical arguments. My debate event, Public Forum, basically worships at the altar of pragmatism. Whoever proves their argument provides the most good for the greatest number of people wins.

And for the longest time, I thought debate was as fair as it could possibly be. After all, anyone with access to a computer and the internet could theoretically research and write a case. Everyone gets the same minutes of speaking time, the same amount of preparation and the same chance of winning the coin flip to choose which side to debate. If fairness means impartial treatment, then isn’t having an unbiased judge decide a winner, based on each argument, fair? 

It was only later that I realized that while the rules of debate may be fair, people aren’t. People make snap judgments when someone stands behind the podium based on their gender or how they’re dressed or the way their voice sounds. People have expectations for what makes a good speaker, expectations that are far easier for most men to fulfill than women. 

I have never been great at emulating that desired measure, even calmness. Inherently, my voice is a bit too high and only rises in pitch when I get excited. I’ve been hyper-aware of my voice and all its deficiencies, but my many attempts to smooth it out or speak lower sound distorted and off-putting. So I’ve spent hours with a pen between my back molars, teaching my tongue to make the correct shapes to deliver crisp and clean words. And for my efforts, I’m still told by my judges to “stay calm” when I’m pressing my opponent with questions, despite him being “lawyer-like” when he spat his own line of questioning at me. 

Even after five years of debate, I’m still waiting for when it stops feeling like a punch in the gut when my opponent starts attacking me instead of my arguments.

And even after five years of debate, I’m still waiting for when it stops feeling like a punch in the gut when my opponent starts attacking me instead of my arguments. I’ve heard opponents start their speech with, “Judge, don’t listen to their silly arguments” or “Judge, they clearly don’t understand this particular issue.” I’ve been interrupted countless times, only for my opponents to explain to me what my own case is as if I had no idea what I was arguing. 

After one particularly egregious case of my opponent trying to fill time by saying that my arguments were “flimsy and foolish” and claiming that I had “misunderstood the entire topic” without actually attacking the logic behind my case, I had enough. During my speech, the first thing I said was that my opponent was using ad hominem attacks instead of interacting with my argument, and that I did not appreciate his comments. After the round, my judge told me he didn’t think my opponent had done anything wrong and asked me to stay on topic. 

Judges and opponents like those are a small minority, but their actions seem to have become normalized — but not permanently. It’s idealistic, but I believe that debate has the built-in mechanisms to fix itself. After all, the absolute best part of the activity is putting together countless driven and incredibly stubborn people. With more and more debaters raising awareness of discrimination, there is a slow but sure movement growing. 

Pursuing impartiality isn’t working, so let’s aim for something better: actually working to fix the system to offer equal opportunity to debaters of all genders. That’s not fairness, that’s justice.

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